Richard Childress Racing kicked off the 2017 NASCAR season at Daytona International Speedway with two new crew chiefs atop the pit boxes. Matt Swiderski started his tenure as the full-time crew chief for Ty Dillon and the No. 3 Bass Pro Shops team in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, while veteran Matt Borland began his role as leader of Paul Menard’s No. 27 Peak/Menards team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
In their first weekends calling the shots, both Swiderski and Borland had success and set the tone for the year to come.
Swiderski and the No. 3 XFINITY Series team came out of the gate strong in the season’s opening weekend at Daytona. Dillon qualified fifth and remained in the top 10 most of the race. The final result hardly reflected the team’s success in Daytona, when Dillon’s Chevy Camaro ran out of fuel on the final green-white-checkered restart, resulting in a 19th-place finish.
“In general, during the race, we were pretty pleased with the car,” said Swiderski. “I’d say the only bad thing that happened the whole weekend was the fuel issue. Not given that issue we probably would have finished in the top five.”
Borland also had a successful weekend with the No. 27 Peak/Menards team, despite a number of setbacks. The team was involved in multiple incidents in Thursday’s Duel qualifying race, were forced to a backup car. Borland and the No. 27 team dug deep, prepared the back-up and ended Sunday’s Daytona 500 in the fifth spot, which was Menard’s best result in the Daytona 500 in 10 tries and his first top-five finish since Talladega Superspeedway in May 2015.
“It was a good weekend, everyone in the company was very helpful,” said Borland. “I definitely knocked off some rust from the past years, but everything went well. The team has done a great job. It was good to get a nice finish out of it.”
Given the early success at Daytona International Speedway, the 45-year-old native of Big Rapids, Michigan, understands that the hard work isn’t over, however it is just beginning.
“I think we had a solid weekend at Daytona. I don’t think it was up to the level of performance that we’re all after,” said Borland. “We had some good finishes out of the week, we had some bad finishes out of the week. But I think if you strip away all the stuff that went right and wrong I think we were OK. We need to get better and everyone in the company is trying to get better.”
Adjusting to New Crew Chief Roles
While Borland is a veteran atop the pit box, he transitioned to that position at RCR from his role as vice president of technology at Stewart-Haas Racing, a shift that has its fair share of differences.
“I think being a crew chief compared to like a competition director, it’s much more short term, immediate and putting fires out,” said Borland. “You know it’s, ‘We weren’t fast in this practice. We need to figure out how to get faster for the next practice in 15 minutes.’ As a competition director or technical director, you’re looking at, ‘Alright, how do we get better three months from now, six months from now,’ ‘If we put in a development program for this, how long until we can get fruit out of it?’ You’re developing parts for the car, developing processes for how to help a race team do something. The crew chief role is much more immediate, much more highs and much more lows. You feel like a hero every now and then, but most the time you feel like a zero.”
While Borland made the transition to RCR at the end of last season, Swiderski has held several different positions within the organization. He served as a data engineer in 2005, an XFINITY race engineer after that, then Cup Series race engineer, followed by a position as chief race engineer, and finally head of vehicle performance. During last year’s XFINITY Series season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he made his crew chief debut and led Dillon and the No. 3 team to a second-place finish.
In 2017, Swiderski is enjoying the competition and his new role as crew chief for the No. 3 XFINITY Series entry.
“I like the challenge, I think the biggest difference is tying everything together,” he said. “In my previous roles, I might mostly focus on simulation or race strategy or software tools. Even as a race engineer you were always in the role where you made a recommendation. You didn’t make many decisions, just a lot of recommendations. Now in the crew chief role, you’re taking in all these recommendations and having to stamp the final approval.”
The amount of decisions a crew chief goes through each weekend is almost impossible to put into a figure, even for a veteran such as Borland.
“I have no idea,” he said of the number of decisions made on a weekend. “Probably hundreds of instant decisions in one weekend. But that’s a complete guess.”
Communication is Key
Every inch of a racing program has room for improvement, but the team atmosphere and communication is often the first place to start. Communication is key to any racing program, and Borland instills that objective with the team and what it will take for them to reach it.
“I think the communication between Paul and I went well during the off-season and in Daytona,” he said. “It’s going to be a year or years before it is perfect, you know. It just takes time to not only build how each other thinks but also those experience that you can go back and talk about like, ‘Hey, remember when we ran out of gas at this place,’ or ‘ Remember how the car felt at Dover when it was bottoming out here,” and all those other things. It just takes time.”
Relationships are paramount in any team sport, and Swiderski understands that just as much as his Cup Series counterpart.
“Communication is really important,” he said. “I have been lucky to work on some R&D projects with Ty over the years. I have always found that we naturally communicate and get along. I think we both kind of have the same personality. He is really clear and honest with feedback. I think we both like to have a plan, neither of us are ‘shoot from the hip’ type of people.”
The chemistry between a driver and crew chief is often like a marriage. It takes time to develop a sense of one another and learn what the other is thinking. The team chemistry at RCR is developing alongside the relationship between driver and crew chief.
“I think the team is getting better and better every day. At first, you’re just trying to remember what people’s names are, let alone remember who does what,” said Borland. “But I’m now getting to know the guys a lot better and we’re starting to build some relationships with each other, so that’s getting better and better every day.”
Looking Toward Success
No matter the amount of work there is left to do, both Swiderski and Borland have an attention to detail and a broad resume to help complete the task at hand. After working the race with Dillon in Homestead-Miami Speedway, Swiderski felt that victory is just around the next turn.
“I felt like we had a solid chance at winning in Homestead,” he said. “I’m hoping that in the first five or six races we can get a win under our belt, breathe easy and build from there.”
Borland agrees that hard work, great communication and teamwork lead to success, however, he feels you cannot get in your own way by thinking about it all the time.
“I think the key to that is – this will sound terrible – but not worrying about it,” he said. “I think the goal is to make sure that week-in and week-out you’re doing the right things, making the right decisions, you’re improving the procedures that you do every week. When you do that the top-fives come, top-10s come and then the wins present themselves. I think when you try and go after wins, they won’t necessarily come.”
Given their successful first weekends, it seems as if success for both Swiderski and Borland are not far off.